Sunday, March 5, 2006

Another Day at the ICA

I shouldn't stop off anywhere on a morning I have a performance, but I had a feeling. I believe in that stuff -- not seeing angels or hearing voices, but hunches. And my hunch was right, because I scored a Frosty and a Rudolph made out of melted plastic chips. I have an Easter Bunny and a lavender egg already; these will go along perfectly. Only I'm so late now, I won't have time to add them to the installation today.

I've got to get into my singlet, which is what I wear for the piece. I thought a red one would suggest a Soviet/Olympic image, which has nothing to do with the piece really, except at Simon of Cyrene, where I talk about donating Bibles to Russia. I also settled on a singlet because it shows off the body I bought from Bally for $40/month over the past year and a half. Not that that has anything to do with the piece either, but it is my life, and I'm entitled to use it in my art.

The yarmulke I wear is one of the, quote, controversial elements of the performance. It's only controversial because I am not myself Jewish, but I met with an ADL guy who determined that since I don't desecrate the yarmulke, or Judaism in any way, they wouldn't denounce the piece. He even wrote a column about it in a local newsletter, saying the confrontation of yarmulke and cross was perhaps the heart of the piece.

It's called, "The Truth Will Set You Free, but First It Will Make You Miserable." What I do, in this very limited space, is a series of monologes while walking the stations of the cross. While chained to the floor. I had to make some alterations, because the ICA's space is rectangular, and the chain effect works better in a circle.

My stations are made from stuff I got at Christmas Tree Shoppes. I decided to leave the tags on where I could. It was October when I bought them; that's why there's sort of an orange-and-black theme to them. I thought that would be controversial too, because I am not Catholic either. Fact is, I was raised Quaker, but that doesn't make for good art.

Not that we don't have our spiritual moments. I once saw a rainbow while coming out of a curve on Storrow Drive. For a second I actually thought it was a special effects the Pops had arranged for a concert. When I remembered that rainbows are real, I burst into tears. But you write a story like that to your Nana. It doesn't exactly "challenge."

"The Truth..." is more complicated than that, and it's far more performance than art. The complete piece takes 90 minutes, so most people have never seen it all. I had a friend do some time studies to determine the average length of viewing. Five minutes. He said the average time at paintings was 50 seconds. So I shouldn't complain.

Norman Deeks, whose show got closed down in Providence, used to say you have to let the art tell you what it wants. When we were in the Visual & Performing Arts program, he used to get a lot of grief for not representing African-American influences in his work. But what was the guy going to do -- he was a Black man in Vermont. He was grateful people came to his shows at all.

For the Providence show, he put out all the traditional imagery -- Kente, Egyptian, Harlem Renaissance. A giant photography collage of Black faces came with a palette of skin tones and a sign that read "How Black Are You?" By my own reckoning, I am the shade of Julian Bond.

What started the commotion was his Comments book, which took a turn for the bizarre just a few days into the show, but went unnoticed for over a week. Someone had written something hateful, then someone wrote back. Before too long, there was the Dialogue on Race going on right there in the Bannister Gallery, and Deeks went wild over it. He built a stand for it. had it lit. Added 20 felt-tip pens and called it, "You Know What THEY'RE Like."

One picket line, 10 editorials, and a rock-throwing incident later, and an RIC spokesman declared live on the channel Four News that he "didn't need this shit."

Maybe the art can't always get what it wants.

I ran into Deeks about a month ago, at the dry cleaning counter. That is, he was behind the counter, in a knit shirt embroidered with a Sarni Cleaners "S," and I was on the other side with an armload of shirts. There's no pretending not to recognize him, so I tried, "How's it goin'?" And he pointed to a toothpaste smudge on one of the sleeves and asked, "And what's the nature of this stain?"

At VAPA we used to say, in situations like that, "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din."

Given the circumstances, I didn't try it on Norman Deeks.

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